Etchu Saeki Norishige

period:End of Kamakura (ca. 1325)
designation:NBTHK Juyo Token
nakago:ubu kirijiri, two mekugiana
nagasa:24.9cm
sori:slight uchi-zori
motohaba:2.2cm
nakago nagasa:9.0cm
nakago sori:0.1cm
price:$60,000

Etchu province is on the northern shore of the main island of Japan, in the provinces referred to as Hokkoku (the Northern Provinces). There were local smiths in the area and some known groups, but nothing in the way of true master craftsmanship before the Kamakura era. Howevert two of the all time greats arise around 1300 AD. These are Go Yoshihiro in Matsukura and Norishige in Gofuku (sometimes known as “The Two Go” because of this).

The two smiths, Go Norishige and [Go] Yoshihiro, are placed at about the same time period [...] they later made incomparable sword masterpieces that must be said to be unparalleled.

When looking at a masterpiece by Go Yoshihiro by holding up a lantern in the middle of the night, or when drawing a dagger made by Norishige from its sheath and viewing it, you cannot help but automatically reach a serenity of mind which is like a dream. These two smiths were bright morning stars in the northern sky at around the end of the Kamakura period. Nihonto Koza

Their styles have a lot in common, with a dark color to the steel and expressive use of nie. Through history there have been stories of one being the other's student and vice versa, and both being the students of Masamune. Today the issue is mostly settled with Norishige considered a student of Masamune's teacher Shintogo Kunimitsu, and senior to Masamune. Go Yoshihiro is considered the top ranked student in the Masamune Juttetsu (the 10 great students of Masamune). This list of 10 students has some that are certain, some that are certainly not, and some that are unsure when we examine their credibility with the modern eye. They are all highly regarded artisans on their own, regardless of their association with Masamune, and all show influence of the Soshu tradition in their work.

Norishige has the personal name of Kurosaburo according to Fujishiro who also ranks him at Sai-jo saku, for grand-master skill. He is inevitably and frequently compared to his fellow student Masamune, and his work stands up very well against the greatest Soshu artisan of all time. Fujishiro called some work of Masamune into doubt, but said there is none held for Norishige, as his works are “superb” with a remarkable hada.

Norishige is superior to Masamune in the hataraki [activities] of nie and forges a unique jihada called matsukawa-hada. He is superior to Masamune in the hataraki of jihada and hamon, though he yields to Masamune in the clearness of jigane and the brightness of hamon. It is another feature of Norishige that the border of the hamon and ji is not conspicuous. NBTHK Token Bijutsu

Norishige's was working at the end of the Kamakura period, between about 1308 and 1328 given his dated work. The close of the Kamakura period is marked by the outbreak of a nasty war between the Northern Court of Ashikaga Takauji in Kyoto (Yamashiro) and the Southern Court of Emperor Go-Daigo in Yoshino (Nara). This resulted in two different dating systems, a change in weapons manufacture and tactics, and the movement of swordsmiths and schools. Echizen and Etchu provinces saw the arrival of smiths from the Rai school (Echizen-Rai) and Yamato traditions (Uda). Uda is said to have taken teaching from Norishige, and as well Kashu Sanekage, another northern smith, and the techniques of Norishige and Soshu can be seen in their works though the sophistication and quality drops off considerably.

There was a lot of smith movement in these times due to the struggles which would only get worse in the Muromachi period. There is another Echizen smith, Tametsugu, who is the son of Go Yoshihiro. After the death of his father, he is said to have been adopted by Norishige. We can see the emulation of both of his parents in his work, and his is the closest to their skill that came after the two. There are 68 Juyo Token blades attributed to Tametsugu (making him number 26 on the list all-time). He was apparently born in and later returned to Mino a bit later than Shizu Kaneuji in the Nanbokucho period. Since Go died very young (age of 27 to 30), possibly Tametsugu was an adopted son as well, as he seems to have been old enough to pick up some of the style and cues from Go, but not long enough to learn to eclipse his master.

Norishige has various names, he left us two signed pieces with the signature Saeki Norishige, and we take this to be a family name or a neighborhood name in Gofuku-go. Old books have him with the title Shingoro (“New Goro”, in effect, the new Masamune), and with the given name Gorojiro (similar meaning). These are most likely posthumous nicknames as he was thought to appear after Masamune as one of his students. However, since the citation is extremely old it indicates that already Norishige, Masamune and Shintogo had achieved very high fame, and this nickname for Norishige would indicate that Masamune was already preeminent.

Norishige's given name is Gorojiro and [he is] a student of Shintogo Kunimitsu of Kamakura. His personal title is Shingoro. He is an expert of jigane forging and his jihada consists of varied grains with numerous hataraki. 喜阿弥本銘尽, Kiami-bon Mei Zukushi (around 1381 AD)

The Kiami-bon is a transcription of an earlier work that was written in the Kamakura period, and is the first recording of Norishige as a student of Shintogo Kunimitsu. The two works we have today with the Saeki signature are both tanto, and have dates but one is eroded away. The other though places him at 1319 and there is one other existing dated blade with a date of 1314. When we add in old oshigata that look reasonable we expand his work period from 1308 to 1328. All of this is the correct time period for working under Shintogo, so we have both tangible evidence today which confirms the old books and changes the commonly held perception since Edo times that he was a disciple of Masamune. There also exists old oshigata of him writing that he was a resident of Soshu and of Kamakura as well.

The Okinsho Kokon Meizukushi (a historic book) includes a list called kokin-kajimei hayamidashi (old and new sword smith names), which shows Norishige as Sagami-no-kuni junin Norishige [note I corrected 'Norimune' from the translation to be 'Norishige'] NBTHK Token Bijutsu

When we look at the style of the early dated tanto they do not depart very far from Shintogo Kunimitsu, all of this combines to indicate that he was one of the disciples of Shintogo learning Soshu craftsmanship in Kamakura and is a little bit older than Masamune, though they would be working side by side.

Today Norishige is most famous for a style of forging that he developed later on in his career, which combined a large patterned jihada with hard and soft steels which combined into many interesting nie effects. Old books comment on it, aside from the NBTHK . This large pattern and combination of steel is something that he took and perfected from the Ko-Hoki smiths that were three centuries in his past, and also worked in the north.

The jihada is o-itame-hada combined with itame and whirlpool like hada in large grain in company with abundant ji-nie and a lot of thick chikei which then stands out. This unique jihada is so-called matsukawa-hada or Norishige-hada. An old book says “Norishige is good at forging iron material and his jihada looks complicated.” Norishige combines soft and hard iron materials and produces unique jihada and jigane looks black [and] that is one of characteristics of Hokkoku swords. NBTHK Token Bijutsu

His work in this regard is peerless and distinctive. Nobody before him or since him was able to replicate it and in examining the works of Hankei, a famous gunsmith turned master swordsmith in the Shinto period who attempted to copy Norishige's work, the high degree of lamination failures indicates that this was very difficult to successfully achieve. Norishige's work as a result will tend to have some flaws in it when he developed this style due to the presumed difficulty of working this material.

The steel has been worked very well, so the grain results in ko-mokume hada with o-hada mixed in. There will be an ayasugi-hada effect steel, or whirlpool effect steel and within it will be chikei. This is popularly called the Matsukawa Hada of Norishige, one of the main trademarks of this smith.

The grain of the steel will stand out within the hamon and there will be sunagashi as well as violent inazuma which in entering the ji becomes a chikei. This particular occurrence is seen most from the middle of the blade towards the fukura area.

In the case of Norishige, steel having been well worked the result is very much in evidence in the Hamon as well as in the Ji with various 'workings' resulting from the Nie such as Chikei and Inazuma and Kinsuji.

Albert Yamanaka, Nihonto Newsletters

The matsukawa hada of Norishige is very easy to recognize once you've seen it and hard to forget due to its unique character.

Student A: How about the matsukawa-hada produced by Norishige?

Kanzan: The chikei is formed by mixing hard and soft steels in the process of forging which primarily derives the overall texture or hada on the metal surface. The chikei appears in the hada as an outstanding additive to it. The name matsukawa-hada was probably given to it owing to the appearance of the hada containing this particular kind of chikei making it look like the bark of old pine trees. English Token Bijutsu

Chikei are formed by ji nie which cluster together tightly and then overlap, making for patterns of harder steel embedded into softer steel. This is difficult to achieve forging wise and for heat hardening, not to have the whole thing fail. It achieves beauty when polished because of the contrast in the materials, and the chikei tend to shine brightly or look black as you move the sword through the light. Crossing into the hamon chikei become inazuma (lightning) and also entirely inside the hamon become kinsuji (gold lines).

Norishige is known for his particularly broad and violent nie hataraki (activities) that are contained with in the jihada and the hamon and cross back and forth between the two. This makes large areas of the sword have uncertain borders between these two zones. There is so much activity in both that it is just not clear where one begins and where the other ends. The descriptions of his activities are usually long because everything nie-related with a name can be found in his work.

[Norishige] left many zai-mei tanto that have shorter ha-watari and uchi-zori. He appears to have challenged Ko-Hoki and Ko-Bizen swords also demonstrated a creative workmanship of nie-deki like Masamune. Hataraki of his nie is more vigorous and lively than Masamune's. Hataraki of ji may exceed Masamune's but his jigane is somewhat inferior to Masamune in clearness and looks darker. The nioi-guchi of Norishige is not so bright and the border between ji and ha is not clearly defined [...]

As for the hamon, its border line is usually misty and unclear because of the density and thickness of both nioi and nie grains forming the nioiguchi, but the hamon consists of notare mixed with compact midare and gunome, and plenty of ashi together with kinsuji and sunagashi. The boshi depends on the kind of hamon and jihada in the lower portion and appears in various patterns such as midare-komi embellished with hakikake, and yaki-kuzure (deformed) or togari-gokoro (almost pointed). Horimono is rarely found on his works. The tip of the nakago is either kurijiri with very little curvature or almost kiri. The yasurime is almost horizontal katte-sagari. The mei is always given in two Chinese characters incised powerfully with a big chisel. The elegant style of writing is also characteristic of this artist. English Token Bijutsu

As for the jitetsu of Norishige, the hamon appeared in the hada and was entwined by the hada with sunanagashi majiri. Fujishiro Yoshio

The shapes of his nakago change from time to time, with Dr. Honma commenting that this is likely due to requirements from the koshirae it was intended for. One of these shapes is kiri (straight cut), which is something also found in Yamato works such as the Hosho school. I've read that these were not so much cut, but probably chiselled and then broken off to create the straight edge.

Norishige has long been considered one of the master tanto makers. He is known for a shape of tanto called takenokozori which refers to a bamboo shoot. This type of shape has what they would call “scarce fukura” and by this they mean that the very end of the tanto is quite sharp without much roundness in the kissaki area. This is one of the traits you would use to identify Norishige during kantei.

In the Koto Period, among the few smiths who were skilled at making tanto, the outstanding smiths are: Awataguchi Yoshimitsu of Yamashiro Province, Rai Kunitoshi of Yamashiro Province, Shintogo Kunimitsu, of Soshu Province, Norishige of Etchu province, Osafune Kagemitsu of Bizen Province, and Samonji. Albert Yamanaka, Nihonto Newsletters

A further trait for Norishige and Soshu tanto in general is mitsu-mune (three sided spine). In this we look for the flat area to be fairly wide and the edges to be quite steep. Not all works have it or are required to have it, but it is considered one of the good features to have when it's there.

Norishige left us a good number of masterpieces and his signature has continued to exist for us. These are almost all items that come from his time after Kamakura, probably he returned to Etchu after the death of Shintogo. Whatever habits were going in Kamakura, it resulted in very few works being signed. Tachi lost their signature by shortening but seem also to have been made unsigned, and ko-wakizashi were often not signed until we get to Hiromitsu. But for Norishige we have 94 blades that have passed Juyo and higher of which two are signed tachi and are two of the three that exist today. He has 22 Tokubetsu Juyo Token, which places him third after Rai/Niji Kunitoshi and Kanemitsu (keep in mind there are two Kunitoshi and two and a half Kanemitsu for every Norishige left)

In this count 35 are tanto, 23 of which are signed. Six of those tanto are also Tokubetsu Juyo. Two of the signatures are long signatures, another three show some unusual characteristics, with the rest being considered the standard signature of Norishige. As well as the NBTHK blades there are another eight Juyo Bunkazai and one Kokuho, all of which attests to his immense skill and reputation. The Kokuho tanto is referred to as “Nippon Ichi”, the best in Japan.

Norishige Tanto

This is a really great tanto that covers all of the salient points of Norishige very well. One of the key features of later period Norishige work is the blending of the jihada and hamon together through layers of nie-based hataraki. This makes it a bit difficult to know where one begins and the other ends. The thick kinsuji and chikei can make layers of hamon on top of each other and at some point they taper off. Where a polisher is going to place his hadori becomes a difficult choice as a result. Sometimes a polisher covers it all over, and sometimes they find an arbitrary line and stick with it.

Norishige has several styles, the early work is a lot like Yukimitsu and Shintogo Kunimitsu, then later work evolves with influence from the older Ko-Bizen and Ko-Hoki traditions. Masamune follows a similar path. Norishige at the end of his days continues very clearly in the pursuit of Ko-Hoki and the works that he made at the end of his days show strong patterns of matsukawa hada in the chikei, usually in large patterns and an extremely varied presentation of nie. This tanto is an example of his final style where he has accomplished everything he has set out to do. This tanto displays the mixing of activities in the ji with those in the hamon, as well as having black ji nie and thick nie in the hamon which alternate with very fine nie. Norishige seems to have been able to achieve this through careful choice and working of materials in order to get them to do this side by side. There are some kitae ware and ohada as are expected on an old Norishige blade. Some of this is just due to age and polishing and some because these materials were so difficult to forge. But the results are quite spectacular which shows why he was so beloved by sword lovers and sword smiths for centuries.

At first glance the nakago seems like it might be clipped at the base, but this is one of the examples where he made kiri-jiri which were cut (or broken) straight across. The exact reason for this is not known, but the Yamato smiths did it and it may have something to do with koshirae fitting or another reason that is lost in time.

This Norishige has a slightly unusual SHIGE character I believe. The NBTHK noted that this style of signature is uncommon and is a research topic. When they encounter something like this, it's important to not confuse it with gimei (false signature). If the NBTHK thought the signature to be false it would not pass through to Juyo Token and would have been removed by a polisher. Many of the unsigned pieces that are Juyo from the Kamakura and Nanbokucho period have had signatures removed in this way when the NBTHK declared them false. The signature on this tanto has been eroded by time and they have inspected the patina to make sure that it is uniform, covering the signature and the nakago. This means the signature dates to the time of creation of the tanto. The NBTHK particularly hammered down the point in the setsumei that this is absolutely work of Norishige, so it should in essence be a reference piece for this style of signature. Looking through the Juyo zufu they passed a similar one to this with a similar notation. It's possible that this is an example of daimei, which would be one of Norishige's students, such as Tametsugu, adding the signature for him, or just an evolution of his signature at the end of his days. Since this piece represents his completed evolution either explanation would make sense.

I'll leave the list of features to the translation of the NBTHK's notes on the blade. It contains the full list of his work, and includes the mitsu-mune made famous on Soshu blades. The tanto remains in pretty good shape, the ji is a little bit weak on the omote just above the machi, but other than that the vibrant activities take over and are quite beautiful. When I received this tanto it had been held for decades in a private collection and then went to one of my clients from a dealer in Japan. He was unable to complete the transaction and so it got handed over to me. The tanto is in old polish, I am not sure when it was done but it is probably from before the long time hiding in Japan. There was a lot of uchiko damage, in particular to the hadori which was essentially ruined by decades of over zealous uchiko. The uchiko “use” can be seen in the photos still in the ji where in the hand it is not so evident but shows up in photography.

Uchiko, over decades, continually rakes and abrades the surface leaving a pattern of fine linear scratches. These had obscured the hadori making it very difficult to see through. The irony is that many collectors believe that hadori needs to receive uchiko treatment to make it more clear, and this is the case only if the hadori was poorly done in the first place. Ted Tenold redid the hadori on this blade very carefully, following the original polish and eliminating the damage and the activities in the ha came through very clearly in the photos afterwards. Addressing the fine scratches in the ji would need a shiage, which is basicaly the last stages of sword polish. I chose not to do that both because I didn't want to alter whatever old polish that had been left and not destroyed by poor maintenance and just for the best interests of the blade. I am making this note because at times you can see the scratches in the photos. It's not a major issue in the hand but you should know they are there and ultimately it will be the next owner's decision to address them or not. In my opinion, nothing should be done as the worst of the damage was easily rectified without altering the blade. Something like a Norishige, we have to think hard first about preservation because it is very rare, and very important. Minor cosmetic issues that don't have much impact should be left alone if it means making alerations to the blade. This should be the case for all good old swords.

Also I'll take the moment to stress again that uchiko is not a tool to be used frequently or without good reason. Ultimately over decades it will ruin a polish and cause someone later down the road to eventually polish a blade that would never have needed it if it was carefully maintained without constantly abrading the surface with uchiko. In the modern day, we do not need this tool as we have microfiber cloths which clean a sword well without abrading the surface. I cannot count the number of blades I have seen damaged by use of uchiko. Everyone claims that it's not them, that they use it uchiko properly, but somehow with everyone and their expertise blades continue to be damaged. So the solution is to just never use it if it's not necessary.

In my opinion a polish is the finished work of someone trained in the art, someone that was chosen to polish the blade because he was trusted to do it well. To put uchiko on his polish would be like ordering a filet mignon at the best steak house in New York and then pouring ketchup on it. That's probably a good example because people will indeed do such things to good food, thinking that they are improving it because they believe it tastes better. Well these cases indicate that some people need to adjust their tastes rather than to destroy artwork until it is suitable to their personal thinking. The craftsman's work should stand without a hobby level enthusiast thinking he can improve it by liberally grinding it with an abrasive.

Getting back to the piece in question: this tanto has a gold habaki with kiri mon, the bottom sleeve being solid gold and the upper gold foil. It is accompanied by well made koshirae which were made sometime in the Showa period. The lacquer is very high quality with gold flakes in the red base. There are two small cracks on it that show in the photos and I am having them repaired as they are minor and it won't be an overhaul.

The tosogu are the animals of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac done in silver, gold, shakudo and shibuichi. There is no attribution for them but they appear to be middle Edo period (1750's) Goto school work, probably off the main line.

This is a piece for people who love the Soshu tradition. Norishige left us a fair number of works but they are still difficult to come by and recently prices have been going up on them. Works of Norishige are always a real treat to encounter due to their unique charm and character making him popular inside Japan and out. Norishige is uniformly praised, so I think it is always a special occasion to be able to add a Norishige to one's collection.

As a final note, I was able to acquire a Norishige katana which matches this tanto in style very well. Given that there are more flamboyant and more quiet styles of Norishige it means matching a katana to a tanto is not as straight forward as just finding two blades attributed to Norishige. The katana was also in an old collection and not turned out to the open air until 2015. It is in old polish too but it was not maintained and has rusted a bit. Unfortunately that means it will need a polish and there is nothing that can be done about that but to commission the work and wait. I make note though because when it is available it will be a rare chance to unite two stylistically similar Norishige together and make a fine daisho from them.

Juyo Token

Appointed on the 51st Juyo Session, October 13, 2005

Tanto (bearing the signature) Norishige

Keijo

hira-zukuri, mitsu-mune, steep oroshi, blade is rather slender and elongated in proportion to its mihaba, there is scarce fukura and very little uchizori

Kitae

standing-out and large-structured itame mixed with mokume and nagare, in addition plentiful of ji-nie and many thick chikei

Hamon

based on notare and mixed with ko-notare, gunome, connected ashi and yô, plenty of kinsuji and sunagashi, much hotsure along the habuchi, a kind of yubashiri-based nijûba, and some tobiyaki, the nioiguchi is wide and quite nie-laden

Boshi

midare-komi with a very small kaeri, i.e. almost runs out in yakitsume manner

Nakago

ubu, kirijiri, katte-sagari yasurime, two mekugi-ana, there is a large dimensioned and rather thickly chiselled niji-mei located on the sashi-omote side, centrally under the first mekugi-ana, whereas the second mekugi-ana goes through the first character for Nori

Setsumei

In the Kokon Mei Zukushi and other Edo-period sword publications, Norishige is listed as one of the Ten Brilliant Disciples of Masamune (Masamune no Juttetsu), but taking into consideration his tachi and tantô shapes and date signatures from the Shôwa and Gen’ô eras, it seems more likely that the Muromachi-period documents are closer to the truth with assuming that Norishige was rather a fellow student of Masamune under Shintôgo Kunimitsu. As for Norishige’s workmanship, he is among the top Sôshû smiths close to Masamune but mostly lays more emphasis on varied nie than the latter. Also the kitae stands out and is larger structured, namely in a highly specific manner which we refer to as matsukawa-hada. Thick and conspicuous chikei and kitae-hada interwoven into the habuchi and ha are typical characteristics of Norishige as are multiple types of nie based activities.

This tantô shows a standing-out and large-structured itame mixed with mokume and nagare. There is plentiful ji-nie and here and there thick chikei: that means the hada appears altogether as matsukawa-hada. The hamon is based on notare and is mixed with ko-notare, gunome, many kinsuji and sunagashi, plenty of hotsure along the habuchi, a kind of yubashiri-based nijûba, and some tobiyaki. The nioiguchi is wide and quite nie-laden so we recognize the typical hand of Norishige here. The deki is excellent and as for the tantô-sugata, the fukura is scarce and there is a hint of uchizori what results in a takenoko-zori what is another characteristic feature of Norishige. We know various signature styles of Norishige but the one seen on this tantô is not yet known, which in turn means that we have here a future research topic.

Sayagaki

This Norishige was discovered during a get together of sword enthusiasts from the upper class in 1943 by Hayashida Hitoshi, a sometime sword dealer and collector in Tokyo. In his notes he made an oshigata of the sword and called it a masterpiece. I think he made this sayagaki for the blade and also commissioned the tsuka and saya. The notes say that the tanto was found with a silver wave style habaki and now it has the gold two piece habaki, so it's likely that he had the koshirae and new habaki made around this time. It stayed in a private Japanese collection since his ownership for many decades until being available recently.